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Hidden kingdom: Missouri River monument holds world-class scenery

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"So perfect indeed are those walls that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work," wrote Meriwether Lewis on May 31, 1805, describing the landscape of the Missouri River Breaks.

COAL BANKS LANDING – Whoever was in charge of picking tepee sites must have really liked Lone Tree Coulee.

Circles of stones memorialize generations of Native American families who camped on this bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Modern travelers exchange the windswept view for a more sheltered cottonwood grove with a developed Bureau of Land Management campground along the riverbank. From either place, the Upper Missouri River Breaks scenic value justifies its National Monument status.

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Teepee rings, circles of stones placed at the bottom of teepees, still mark a popular historic campsite for Native Americans on a bluff above the river.

And in another mile of floating, the valley adds the “Wild” portion of its federal Wild and Scenic River designation. But don’t let layers of government and private management obscure the geologic strata that’s amazed every visitor who’s dared approach.

“So perfect indeed are those walls that I should have thought that nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she had first began her work,” Meriwether Lewis wrote on May 31, 1805, as he first encountered what’s now known as the White Cliffs. “As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end.”

Two hundred years later, about 3,500 people a year share Lewis and Clark’s “inchantment.” Nearly double that number came during the bicentennial years of 2005 and 2006. On a four-day trip at the end of September, one 10-person group and two solo kayakers were the only humans seen or heard throughout the most popular, 47-mile reach between Coal Banks and Judith Landing.

“What Lewis and Clark saw is what you see now,” said Mark Schaefer, BLM’s supervisory outdoor recreation planner for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. “They’d sit there, look around and say it hasn’t changed much.”

Two things are different. Domestic cattle have replaced the buffalo that the Voyage of Discovery marveled at as they passed. And you can’t drink the water. So much sediment and agricultural runoff color the river that even filters and purification tablets can’t keep up. BLM recommends bringing at least a gallon per person per day from home before you set out.

You will see golden and bald eagles, great blue herons, flocks of ducks and geese, great horned owls, ruffed grouse and meadowlarks. Coyotes may pad along the banks, and definitely will serenade you at night. Mule deer and bighorn sheep ramble through the sagebrush. At night, shooting stars sizzle with no competitive glow from civilization anywhere on the black horizon.

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A group of hikers makes their way through a slot canyon near the Eagle Creek campground on the Missouri River last week. "Pick a coulee and go see what's up there," encourages Mark Schaefer, BLM's supervisory outdoor recreation planner for the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. "Everybody looks up into the White Cliffs, but nobody ever goes up in them."

And you will see landforms that rival anything in better-known places like Canyonlands National Park. Walls of white Virgille sandstone slash through the dun prairie bluffs. Mushroom-shaped battlements defend their edges. Dark-brown volcanic intrusions poke through, with oddly uniform block formations that prompted Lewis to confuse them with man-made brick fortifications. Some walls plunge straight down to the water, while other formations erupt a mile or more from the river’s edge.

“Everybody looks up into the White Cliffs, but nobody ever goes up in them,” Schaefer said with a touch of incredulity. “Pick a coulee, and go see what’s up there. When I was a river ranger, that’s what I’d do – let’s go up that one.”

Those who do may find Native American petroglyphs of running horses and buffalo, slot canyon labyrinths, rock towers and peep-holes. Skinny, free-standing obelisks poke up near city-block-sized landmarks like Steamboat Rock.

Lone Tree Coulee Campground is the latest addition to the network of 10 developed or primitive BLM campgrounds between Coal Banks and Judith Landing. Boaters may also camp in numerous remote stretches of river or island. However, the monument is checkerboarded with private land. While many landowners allow daytime visits, advance permission is required for camping or more extensive exploration. A river guidebook published by BLM clearly notes the public and private parts of the river.

Despite its attractions, visitation to the White Cliffs of the Missouri has declined since the Voyage of Discovery celebrations. Part of that is sheer remoteness – Coal Banks lies 240 miles from Missoula, with a final 8 miles of gumbo road between Highway 87 and the put-in that can quickly turn to quagmire if a rainstorm occurs.

Fort Benton outfitter Mike Gregston has owned Adventure Bound Canoes for 19 years, and used to compete with seven other companies for shuttles and rentals. Now he’s the last local service still in business.

“When I started the business in 1998, the demographic was the same as what I’m doing now,” Gregston said. “I call them the TOGGs – Tough Old Guys and Gals. We don’t have much young recruitment. We don’t see the participation in canoeing that we used to. It’s all rafting, mountain biking and kayaking.”

Congress designated 149 miles of the Missouri as one of the first Wild and Scenic River Act special places in 1976. In 2001, President Bill Clinton further protected the area by placing about 375,000 acres of public land into the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Both are managed by BLM.

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A canoe sits beached across from the famous White Cliffs of the Missouri River last week. "What Lewis and Clark saw is what you see now," says BLM's Mark Schaefer.

Canoes remain the best way to visit the White Cliffs. Rafts can carry more gear, but can be paralyzed by the Missouri’s frequent headwinds. Kayaks impose limitations on cargo, and won’t find any whitewater to justify their athletic qualities. It takes a minimum three days to float the White Cliffs, and more to do justice to all its offerings.

Motorboats face numerous rules through the National Monument segments of the river. A seasonal restriction from June 15 to Sept. 15 limits them to downstream travel only in the White Cliffs reach, with no wake allowed. Much of the area between Judith Landing and Fred Robinson Bridge (below the White Cliffs) allows downstream travel only three days a week during the summer season. Other parts of the river permit up- and downstream recreational use year-round. Changing water levels can make using an outboard motor difficult at any time.

While the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument isn’t experiencing the same flood of tourists that Glacier and Yellowstone national parks saw this year, Gregston said that’s OK.

“When you have 6,000 people in here, it’s hard to find a place to camp,” Gregston said. “By that third week in September, most people are gone.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.